Three Capitol Beach homeowners who want to build a neighborhood solar energy system on the west side of the lake received the first blessing they needed this month.
City zoning codes allow businesses to put in a large solar energy-conversion system in industrial and agricultural areas. And homeowners and businesses are allowed to put in small systems, with panels on buildings or on their property.
But there is no provision for building mid-size neighborhood units in residential areas of the city, said Andrew Thierof, a city planner.
City zoning code amendments approved by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission recently would allow these mid-sized systems, if they are owned by people who live in that neighborhood, and are located on land not suited for any residential use, Thierof said.
The Capitol Beach system, which could have more than 300 panels, would be on an unbuildable lot owned by the neighborhood association, between West Lakeshore Drive and Interstate 80, west of the lake.
It would generate 100 kilowatts of energy that would be sold to Lincoln Electric System under a special LES program.
This would be the first community solar project in Lincoln, said Bob Ruskamp of LES.
The city has about 70 customers with smaller home systems, a number that has been growing in recent years, he said.
The changes to the zoning code that allow this community solar facility will also increase the opportunity for solar energy-conversion systems throughout the city, Thierof said.
The group, which has incorporated as Beach Solar LLC, hopes to have up to 20 Capitol Beach homeowners invest in the solar system, according to Terry Wittler, one of the homeowners involved in the development.
Having a single entity, not 20 individual owners, makes dealing with LES and insurers easier, Wittler said.
The land the group plans to use was left over when the interstate was created in the early 1960s, he said. The interstate cut through the lake, which was once twice its current size. This land is too low to be developed, he told the planning commission.
The solar panels would be screened from homes by a row of trees and the lower elevation of the land itself, according to planning department documents.
The panels, which are designed to absorb sunlight, not reflect it, would not affect interstate drivers, Wittler said. The panels would be oriented to the south and slightly to the west, away from drivers.
Whether the panels can be seen from the interstate is not an issue, Theirof told the commission.
Solar energy is a positive thing for the city, he said. LES would like it to be visible, showing the community support for alternative energy.
The zoning code changes, allowing mid-size neighborhood solar facilities in residential areas, also requires Lincoln City Council approval. The proposed changes are expected to go to the council in June.
The group will also need a special permit, requiring another approval by the planning commission.
Several planning commission members had concerns about the property tax status of these mid-sized solar systems.
Since they would be located on unbuildable land, called outlots, the county assessor's office has indicated it would not have any value for property tax purposes. But they are an improvement that will produce income, several commissioners pointed out.
“I love this project. And it is a great use of this space," said Tom Beckius, commission member and one of two commissioners who voted against the zoning code changes.
"But not recognizing the improvement for property tax purposes is not equitable to everyone in the community," he said. “If I were a restaurant owner, I’m not sure I would feel great about that (not taxing this land)."